John Denham is one of the more impressive members of a largely undistinguished Cabinet, and his speech yesterday on race and discrimination was characteristically thoughtful, if disingenuous. Mr Denham is the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, head of a department whose very title signifies the multiculturalist patchwork the country has become. The word “communities” is often used as a euphemistic shorthand for ethnic minorities, on whose advancement the Government has concentrated in recent years. So successfully has it done so, said Mr Denham, that “being black or Asian no longer means being automatically disadvantaged”. He effectively declared the war on racism over, and claimed it was Labour that won it.
We are not convinced that disadvantage was ever “automatic”; many people from ethnic minorities were held back not simply by discrimination, but because they were, by and large, less well-off and poorly educated. Mr Denham traces the improvements to the Race Relations Amendment Act introduced in 2000, after Sir William Macpherson’s inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. But the truth is that things have been getting better for 30 years or more, as a tolerant country has come to terms with being more racially diverse than it once was. As Trevor Phillips, the chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, has observed: “Britain is by far the best place to live in Europe if you are not white.”
The problem is that if you are white–and working-class and male–Britain is not necessarily such a pleasant land. Whereas ethnic minorities, especially those who have arrived relatively recently, tend to have high aspirations, stable homes and make great sacrifices to ensure the best education for their children, the same culture does not pervade white working-class families. Their children, particularly the boys, have for many years been out-performed at school by virtually every other social group, and the decline in heavy industrial jobs that once offered a livelihood to young men with no qualifications has compounded their disadvantages.
It is impossible, however, not to take a cynical view of Mr Denham’s somewhat belated recognition of the parlous position of this group. These are the traditional supporters of Labour’s heartland, the “core vote” that Gordon Brown is desperate to retain, who feel badly let down by the Government and are turning to the BNP.
It will rank as one of the greatest stains on his premiership that such extremists were able to gain an electoral foothold in our country. For all Mr Denham’s self-congratulation, that is the true legacy of Labour’s years in power.